The Role of Language and the Significance of Primordialism in Nationalistic Rhetoric

A Case Study of National Identity Discourse in Contemporary Japan

  • Elisa Vitali University of Milan


Nihonjinron, the particularistic discourse on Japanese national identity, successfully dominates the Japanese panorama even now, thanks to the influence of academic and popular literature, mass media, Japan’s powerful cultural industry, politics, and a widespread, genuine interest in “Japaneseness” among the Japanese themselves. The works of professor Watanabe Shōichi represent an outstanding example of Nihonjinron literature and of its temporal continuity. From the second half of the 1970s until well into the 2000s, Watanabe has been surprisingly prolific in the nihonjinron field, enthusiastically propagating the establishment’s ideology. In this respect, his essays provide a significant insight into three main aspects of the Nihonjinron: the role of language as the highest expression of national identity; the existence of a widespread set of peculiar Japanese expressions conveying its ideological framework; its deep-rooted primordialist core. In the construction of a lexical and conceptual dichotomy between the stratum of the supposed “native lexicon” and that of “foreign loans” which compose the Japanese language and in the emphasis on the uniqueness of the Japanese language as a vehicle of Japanese primeval spirit, Watanabe shows the primordialist system of beliefs surrounding the concept of the “Japanese nation” (naturalness, organicity, continuity, timelessness, mythical-ness, sameness, perennial-ness) which firmly underlines the entire Japanese identity discourse.